Paper as commodity in medieval magical and medical practices

Debate surrounding the use of paper in late medieval England is quite often bundled up with post-medieval printing economies, and, when reclaimed by medievalists, is mainly confined to matters related to manuscript production and book history. It is a truism of book history that paper matters because it was adopted as writing material, and yet the judgment of medievalists on paper can be damning, sympathetic or a bit of both. Scholarship on pre-modern paper use in medieval handwritten culture is very much focused on ‘revolution’, ‘paucity’ and ‘status’. Thinking about paper, however, in this period is a complex business. This blog post explores an important thread related to paper as a cultural object. It shows that, in order to analyze the true impact that paper had on medieval handwritten culture, we need to understand the many strands which are woven into medieval culture. Much of this material is part of a larger project on medieval paper and its impact on medieval society, culture and, of course, book history.

Paper as commodity in medieval magical and medical practices

‘He then looked and saw an amulet sewn into the tarboosh, which he took and opened’ (The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights)

The tale of Nur al-Din and his son Hasan is a well-known one from The Arabian Nights. It tells the story of Nur al-Din’s self-imposed exile in Basra and the return to Egypt of his son Hasan. The involvement of magic, disguise and the subsequent recognition of Hasan as the son of Nur al-Din are all essential elements of the story. But the amulet represents the tangible proof of Hasan’s true identity. The talisman is made from a scroll of paper, stitched into a fold of material and then placed in Hasan’s turban. It was given to Hasan by his father just before he died. A token of recognition which unlocks a knotted mystery; a powerful, meaningful object which represents the climax of the narrative, because it enables the identification of the male protagonist and the continuation of the story to a happy conclusion.[1] In The Arabian Nights, the writing of words on paper regularly carries symbolic, almost sacred connotations, announcing in a loud and clear voice that paper as a commodity is an integral part of understanding social and cultural custom in fiction, and perhaps in real life too.

It is now accepted that The Arabian Nights, first mentioned in a ninth-century manuscript fragment, is a compilation of stories which has evolved and been extended over the centuries;[2] it is tantalising to suggest that this process of augmentation also absorbed local practices and technologies. Paper arrived in the Arab world well before its introduction to the West and began to be used as a commodity from the eighth century.[3] The amulet is a witness to knowledge and healing in a society fully accustomed to paper. This use in popular lore is indicative of the adoption, acceptance and full participation of a new technology in society (see also the ‘One Million Pagoda’ in Japan). Similar evidence can be traced in the use of paper in charms, amulets, and medical or culinary recipes in Western literature and culture from the late medieval period. This evidence, however, is seldom studied or indeed catalogued, although more work has been undertaken on post-medieval medical practices.

One fascinating example is Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. MS 553. The volume is a fifteenth-century collection of medical recipes and texts, including one charm which claimed to cure all manner of fevers. In this instance, the maker is instructed to write this phrase: ‘for to destruye alle maner of feueres wryt þes ix wordes in pauper’ on a piece of paper. Here, the very act of inscribing these nine words on paper activates their magical and healing power.

The practice of using paper in medical knowledge and treatments is also seen in another medical treatise translated into English from Latin in the fourteenth century. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 1396 contains a version of Lanfrank’s Science of Cirurgie. Paper is used here in a number of different ways. In a recipe to whiten teeth, paper was folded and used as a plaster to apply a mixture of flour, sal ana and honey. In another recipe, burnt paper ashes were used, alongside borax, to staunch blood flow after phlebotomy. In a final example in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O. 1.13 (fol. 194v), a recipe dating to the late fifteenth century uses brown paper as a kind of bandage to heal a wound of the head. In all these examples, the different properties of paper, for instance its colour and flexibility, are put to use in different ways for anaesthetical and healing purposes.

In contrast to Mediterranean countries, England only experienced the importation of paper at the beginning of the fourteenth century. However, as soon as it became available it was adopted in diverse ways. As we evaluate the significance of the paper revolution in the West, we often focus on the impact that it had on book production, record keeping and manuscript transmission. We frequently forget that the great success that paper enjoys as technology and craft is in direct proportion to its multiple uses to fulfill different needs and, as such, demands more attention.

The examples I have included above show that paper started to be employed in traditional medical practices as an alternative to textiles to attend to injuries. This is what I call the ‘textile economy’ in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century medical customs, which largely employed linen cloth and wool not only to medicate and wrap wounds, but also to make potions. Cambridge, St John’s College, MS B.15 is another collection of medical recipes, one of which recommends curing pain and the inflammation of nerves with black wool (fol. 11v). The recipe advises to ‘Tak blak wolle as it growth between þe schepe legges’ and then wash it in warm water before making a potion to drink.

CSJC_B.15_fol.11v (1) FI

Cambridge St John’s College, MS B. 15, fol. 11v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.

In fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, grocers, spice dealers and haberdashers sold paper to meet a wide range of practical needs outside the book trade. For example, in the 1360s the household of King John II of France purchased paper from a certain Berthëlemi Mine, a spice dealer in London, to wrap up jam (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS FR 11205). It should not, therefore, be surprising that paper as a technological innovation contributed to developments in both literary and medical contexts. Both served specific purposes in society and contributed to popular lore with the intention of improving life; in the case of The Arabian Nights, actually prolonging life itself.


[1] On this practice, see Don C. Skemer, Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages, Magic in History (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006)

[2] R. Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Penguin, 1995)

[3] J. Bloom, Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001)

Orietta Da Rold is a university lecturer in the Faculty of English and a Fellow of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge. She has worked for many years on the impact of paper in late medieval England. Da Rold is Director of the Mapping Paper project and is currently working on a monograph seeking to explore the impact that paper had in the pre-printing world, by considering how it enabled the mobility of knowledge and dissemination of learning by enriching literary, cultural and technological practices. The project is funded by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship due to start in October 2017.

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